Brexit, Pursued by a Bear
When we think about British literature, we probably think first of William Shakespeare or Charles Dickens. Indeed, they were some of Britain’s most prolific and enduring writers, and their unwavering position as part of literary canon is important to understanding what we conceptualize as Britishness.
In light of Brexit, however, British identity—Britishness—is perhaps under more scrutiny that it has been in decades. The success of the Brexit campaign to leave the European union is the complicated product of so many factors, but ultimately it comes down to the story being told about British national identity.
As British literature and English literature are often and incorrectly used as interchangeable labels, so Britishness is so often conflated with Englishness–specifically white Englishness. The Brexit campaign succeeded in convincing enough voters that Britishness and Englishness were the same. Had they taken a good, hard look at Britishness, even Englishness, they would have discovered that they were imagining at best an outdated version of Britain, and at worst a Britain that never even existed.
Brexit has roots in a Britain that never existed.
Britishness is inclusive; not only does it comprise Englishness, Scottishness, Irishness and Welshness, it is also international in its scope. It has to be, not just because of the aftershocks of the British Empire, but also as a condition of living in the modern world.
As an American born and raised, I am certainly not qualified to speak to the experience of being British, nor is that an experience I wish to unpack. Like any identity, it is one that is inherently plural and various. Also like any identity, it is rigorously cultivated and existent in several iterations. It is part performance and part instinct.
Looking at the way Britishness has been cultivated within its literature, Britain has never been the portrait of national homogeneity the Brexit campaign so often championed. This is not to say that the UK is the land of intersectional milk and honey. Much of British literature is blatantly sexist, racist, homophobic, classist and often elitist. However, so much of British literature is also based on the depiction of diversity. Charles Dickens exposed and celebrated all different classes and ages of people. Maria Edgeworth wrote of Ireland under the thumb of English control. Geoffrey Chaucer gave us tales from self-important clergymen and flatulent tradesmen alike. Jane Austen, the Brontës, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot, to name a few, give readers access to the lives of women of many backgrounds and means. Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall wrote queer narratives when such stories, even undertones, were forbidden and taboo.
British literature has also championed the problematic. The British Empire was as much a literary entity as it was a political and geographic one. The works of Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad, for instance, often engage with the British presence abroad while failing to recognize or even actively stripping native characters of their humanity. The tradition of a canon populated mainly by middle and upper class, straight, white men has successfully silenced countless voices that readers and scholars alike are only now beginning to recover.
While the plurality of Britishness once meant the inclusion of more social classes and genders, the plurality of Britishness now also demands the inclusion of people of different races, religions and sexualities. True Britishness, just like true Americanness, is the reality of day-to-day life. It’s a narrative of opening up, where we imagine what we are and what we could be, and not a bloated distortion of what we used to be.
The “losers” write stories.
National identity has always been articulated through its literature. It’s how we construct that identity, and how we make identities complex and sometimes infuriatingly complicated. The victors might write history, but the “losers” write stories. Winners imagine history in their own image, “losers” imagine history as it was. The story of Britishness that led to Brexit was foolishly limited, and more importantly, it was wrong about what Britishness is and has been. Eventually, I have to believe, that story will fall away. Because after all, as Hemingway said, it is a writer’s job to tell the truth.